She’s taken a lover. He’s devastated. A marriage breaks up in this determinedly abstract novella from Steiner (The Catastrophe, 1996, etc.).
They’ve been married 20 years, this nameless couple. We don’t know much about them. She’s a globe-trotting artist with a flourishing career. He has an unchallenging desk job. They’re sitting on the terrace of their home in the South of France, overlooking an olive grove. She has confessed to an affair with a lover in Paris and will be leaving her husband. Their marriage had become claustrophobic, she claims. They are no longer compatible. Her new love is “a mad love, perhaps doomed, but beautiful.” She does not elaborate. The focus is on the husband, the narrator. This is a very French work by an American. Steiner has incorporated some elements of the nouveau roman. Plot and character are out. In their place is a reality shaped by the artful deployment of key words, phrases and objects. A key recurring phrase is “the ordeal of the postmortem.” Taken together with a key word, “nonexistence,” the meaning is clear. The death of his marriage will entail the death of his spirit. He will be forced to conduct an autopsy on himself. Rather than make these points to his wife, he makes them to himself in a monologue, since she has stepped away to pack her suitcases. The cerebral is interrupted by the carnal when he recalls their sex life. Their first kiss led to sex in an elevator operated by a handicapped man. She would often arouse him in public places by going nude underneath her Burberry; “nude” is another key word. Yet the overall effect is more clinical than erotic. There’s a surprise ending, but it does not offer a way out of the maze that Steiner has constructed.
A tedious investigation of a dying marriage that lacks the elegance associated with the genre.